Special Feature: How Camden New Journal reporters have steered a community through the Covid crisis

Posted on: May 27, 2020 by admin

A special feature from Dan Carrier (pictured above), a reporter at the Camden New Journal

THE voice on the other end of the line was barely audible.

“Hello, news desk,” I said, and then, after waiting for a reply that was not forthcoming, I repeated myself as I struggled to hear what the caller was saying.

At the other end of the line was a reader of the Camden New Journal –  a woman in her 70s, living alone on a small estate in the north of the borough, someone with a multitude of health issues that made getting out and about a struggle at the best of times – and impossible during the lockdown.

Her daughter lived two miles away, but has a heart condition and a child who suffers from chronic asthma.

All three members of this family had been told they were particularly at risk, and must not leave their homes.

Ms M was in deep trouble. Her cupboards were bare and she did not know where to turn to find help. Without access to the internet, and with charities locally having such a massive job on their hands already, she dialled our number.

My name is Dan Carrier, and I am a reporter at the Camden New Journal.

Ms M had rung me as her daughter had read in the New Journal, which had popped through her door, that if you were in need, please call.

I got in a van laden with must-have kitchen staples and bathroom products, and paid Ms M a visit. Chatting to her from one side of a front door, I heard how she was coping, what help she needed.

I left her plenty of groceries and promised I’d be back again. I also paid her daughter a visit to let her know her mum was going to be ok, and drop some supplies there too.

The story of Ms M has been a daily occurrence at our newspaper over the past 10 weeks. As well as reporting on how the Covid-19 crisis has struck across the three central London boroughs our titles cover, I have worn both a reporter’s hat and organised an emergency aid project to help our readers know they are not alone. I have dropped off 100s of donations from readers who can offer help to those who need it, and helped vulnerable people and families connect with established welfare bodies who can offer support and advice.

Picture: Dan with council food bank volunteers

In the week before lockdown in London, I and my colleagues at the New Journal were gearing up to cover the biggest story of our lives. We had to lay out how we could produce the paper when we were scattered to all four corners after shutting down our newsroom.

My colleagues and I not only discussed how we were going to report on the biggest story of our lifetimes, ensure our readers were fully informed in a non-sensational way, make sure their voices were heard, their stories chronicled, and hold those in power to account – but also how we could also use our reach to make a genuine difference, how we could put our unique relationship with our readership to the very best possible use.

From older people staying home to those who have fallen ill, families with mouths to feed, people who have lost their incomes, those who are ‘just getting by’, our newspaper has met and helped them all since March 23rd.

I was in a good position to do this. I have worked for the CNJ for about 20 years as a reporter – though I first drew a pay packet from the current editor, Eric Gordon, when I was 13. I delivered the CNJ in streets around my home, and he paid me 1p for every copy I popped through a letter box.

I live on the patch too, so I can walk into work each day, pick up a story on route. I feel I have a handle on the pace we cover.

We started by borrowing a van from a hire firm near our office. They wavered a fee – I’ve had the vehicle now for 10 weeks – and got to work.

Using our contacts, we sourced supplies. They have ranged from donations from independent businesses, late night collections of food discarded by supermarkets – and of course, the generous help of our readers.

Every morning, I find packages left on my door step: packs of nappies, trays of onions, jars of marmite… it is endless and fascinating what might show up next. Our readers want to help, and know that they can do in a direct and quick way through us: they have brought me £1,000s worth of food to pass on since lock down.

We have acted in a number of ways: emergency responses to people in real, immediate need has been one aspect. Our news desk takes calls and emails from individuals, and referrals from neighbours, mutual aid groups, charities, tenants associations and community centres.

We don’t intrude. We simply can react immediately to help tide people over.

Picture: Delivering to the London Irish Centre food bank

We have also helped co-ordinate supplies, working with Camden Council, food banks, charities and community centres, projects for homeless people. I take their requests  – ‘do you have any fresh vegetables?’ ‘we need baby food’ ‘we’re after some bread’ and I will either have enough already in the van or my lock up to take round, or be able to find some.

An example: yesterday (Tuesday), homeless charity Streets Kitchen asked if I had any sugar, flour and eggs, as they wanted to bake cakes for the people they help.

No – but within an hour, I did.

I contacted Mutual Aid groups in our neighbourhoods – and a sack of sugar and packs of flour were offered. A box of 120 eggs handed over by a family owned Italian restaurant nearby.

On Monday nights, we run a curry club for families who receive free school meals. Working with primary schools, I have a list of addresses to deliver to. An Indian restaurant (pictured above) I have been eating in for years had asked me what they could to help – and so once a week, they provide a decent spread. Not only does this help put food on tables, it is an important morale booster: many of the families could not afford to eat out or order in take aways – and they look forward to their Monday night treat. From a can of baked beans handed over to a £5,000 donation we received to pass on to a community centre, we’ve become a conduit for other people’s generosity. Just last week, a reader who has done well for himself bought me enough ingredients for 30,000 meals.

I also have been able to use this as a point of contact to hear people’s stories, to hear what they need.

As a reporter, it has been fascinating: I have heard so many incredible stories – horribly tragic, some uplifting, all giving me a greater insight into the patch we cover. It has also had the knock-on effect of adding to and refreshing my contacts book. By connecting with our readership in this new and unique way, I have met 100s of people whose voices are not often heard.

It feels real, socially conscious, grass roots, pavement level journalism – and epitomises, I am proud to say, what the New Journal is all about.

Our readers have a sense of ownership.

They know we are on their side.

In tough times for local newspapers, we feel we have the deep commitment and support of our readers – a two way relationship we have nurtured and care passionately about.

Pictured: a smiling recipient of a New Journal food package

Picture credits: Dan Carrier